Tilling vs. Plowing – What’s the Difference?

Tilling and plowing are quite similar in their intent. Both processes prepare the soil, aerate it,  and utilize a machine with moving blades. So, what exactly is the difference between tilling and plowing?

In this article, we’ll explain in detail what both processes are, when they’re used, and what the main benefits are of each. Also, we’ll explore the various types of tillers and plows.  

What is Tilling?

Tilling is mechanically conditioning the soil so that it’s in the best possible state for planting new seeds. Healthy soil is soil that has been aerated, has even nutrition, and is free from clay clumps. That’s the best way for seedlings to spread their roots and absorb the nutrients and minerals they need to thrive. 

Tillers are a lot like rakes or big forks. They dig through the topsoil to depths of up to 12 inches, thereby loosening the compaction of the soil, breaking up residual stalks, destroying weeds, and burying organic matter deeper into the soil, where it can be reabsorbed. 

Tilling also pushes fertilizers, and other agricultural products deeper into the soil, instead of leaving them on the surface. This way, they wouldn’t be washed away or under-utilized. This preparation creates an optimal seed bed for the upcoming planting season.

This process is beneficial for the soil as long as it maintains the soil structure. Overly enthusiastic gardeners might be tempted to over-till their soil, but that’s often counterproductive. 

Types of Tillers

There are three main types of tillers: manual, front tine, and back tine. Each one has a recommended usage, operational requirements, and an optimal garden size. 

Manual and Handheld Tillers

Manual tillers, also called handheld tillers, are great for small gardens. Tight spaces need smaller equipment, and a backyard rarely needs the bulky tillers you’d see on a farm.

Handheld tillers can vary from the simple Ninja Claw that sells for less than $20, to name brand models that exceeds $100. They’re both perfectly suitable for flower beds, edgings, as well as preparing a small-sized garden. 

Front Tine Tillers

Front tine tillers are a step up from the handheld and manual ones. These can cover larger areas in less time, in addition to saving all the effort that manual tilling requires. 

As the name implies, the tines are placed in front of the engine, which makes the tiller easier to maneuver. This arrangement is great for small to medium-sized gardens. These tillers are often compact and easy to store, and relatively affordable. The Sun JoeTJ604E is a good example.  

Rear Tine Tillers

Rear tine tillers are the most powerful type of tiller on the market. With the tines placed behind the engine, and powered directly by it, these tillers can go through deeper and harder soil with no trouble at all. 

Rear tine tillers are typically powerful, large, and expensive. A great example is the Yardmax YT4565, which can be used in large gardens or small farms. These tillers can sometimes cost below $1000, but often are bought for around $1500-$2000.

What is Plowing?

Plowing is the process of digging through the under-layers of the soil and turning the upper layer on its side. This action revitalizes the soil and brings the buried nutrients closer to the surface, where germinating seeds and growing plants can benefit from them. 

The plow typically makes furrows as it goes through unprepared, overgrown, or compacted soil. These newly created paths facilitate the rooting of the baby seedlings and allow them to grow into healthy crops.

Types of Plows

The wide variance in the types of soil, technology, and field areas drove the need for designing different types of plows. For example, a plow that works well in soft soil might be highly challenged in hard rocky soil.

Here are the main types of plows that you’re likely to come across in farms or gardens.

Moldboard Plow

The moldboard plow is quite close in its concept to the ancient plows, particularly the Grasshopper plow invented by John Deere in 1837.

The simple, yet brilliant, design consists of a massive blade with a curved contour, with which the plow cuts through the ground and turns a large chunk of the topsoil, leaving behind a furrow and a mound. These plows are multipurpose but work best in soft soil.

Reversible Garden Plow

The reversible garden plow has a double blade, with one tilted to the right, and the other tilted to the left. This allows gardeners to plow sequentially without needing to redirect or drag the tractor. 

Chisel Plows

Chisel plows aerate and loosen up the soil without turning the top layer. This is a process that’s a cross between tilling and plowing, and it aims to minimize the erosion of the soil.

The blades look like a chisel, and these plows primarily cut through the soil, without causing much disturbance to its layers.  

Disc Plows

The disc plow is rather similar to a chisel plow in that it doesn’t turn the soil. The main difference between them is that the disc plow is much sharper, and its main role is to cut through tough hardened soil. 

Generally, most plow blades are helpless in rocky, clumpy, or hard soil. That’s where a disc plow, with its hardened and sharper blades, comes in handy.

Ridge Plows

Some crops, like potatoes, need a deep furrow to grow. Back in the day, this preparation of the soil was carried out manually. However, a slight modification in a plow blade automated that process.

The blades of the ridge plow look like the wings of a big bird. And there are typically a number of these blades on a beam. That way, the field is prepped for cultivating potatoes or other root crops without much effort.

When to Use a Tiller

Experienced farmers know that some parts of their land require fall and spring tilling, different parts need spring tilling only, while others don’t need any tilling at all. 

To the new farmers and gardeners, this might sound like a puzzle. However, while the matter of tilling might involve several variables, but there’s nothing too complicated there. 

The ultimate goal is to get the soil to be ready and fertile right before the growing season. That’s why early spring tilling is the most common timing, provided the soil isn’t too soggy from unexpected rains or a long winter. 

Fall tilling is often used to chop off and bury tough residual plantations. A good example is a cornfield after the harvest. You’d often see yellowed leaves and deep roots that resist natural decomposition. 

Tilling these fields in the autumn allows these residual leftovers to break down and enrich the soil by the time springtime comes around. A soybean field, in contrast, doesn’t need a fall tilling, as the residual parts are quite soft, and don’t require any help to decompose.

One of the main reasons some farmers might skip the fall tillage is when there’s a drought. In such cases, the residual stalks help to keep the moisture of the soil. Tilling would expose the ground and let it dry up more quickly.   

Benefits of Tilling

Tilling is a simple and effective way to prepare the soil for seeding. Plants grow much better in healthy, vital, well-aerated soil. And to that end, tilling is helpful in four main ways: 

  1. It decreases the compaction of the soil.
  2. It aerates the soil with essential oxygen.
  3. Tilling gets rid of weeds and residual crops.
  4. It evenly distributes nutrients and fertilizers in the soil.

Tilling is just like passing a fork through the soil. The tines, or blades, of the tiller, typically cut through a shallow layer of the topsoil. Unlike plowing, tilling doesn’t turn over the soil or go deeper than 12 inches. 

This mild action is sufficient to decrease and break down residual stalks, uproot harmful weeds and bury organic material deeper into the ground for reabsorption. At the same time, the compacted top layer becomes a bit more loose and oxygenated.  

Another important benefit of tilling is that it redistributes fertilizers, weed killers, herbicides, and other soil conditioners. The tiller’s blades push these substances a little deeper into the ground, where they would be more effective. 

When to Use a Plow

A plow is a more intense form of a tiller. It digs deeper through the soil, and has the added functions of turning the topsoil over, as well as creating furrows or ridges. 

Many farmers and gardeners often plow their fields a few weeks ahead of seeding. Still, plowing can be carried out anytime between harvesting a ripe crop and planting the field again in the next season. 

The best time to plow thus depends on many factors – factors like the rain season, snow, and drought can all affect it. As a rule of thumb, preparing the field a few weeks before seeding is a good approach. It maintains all the benefits of plowing, and avoids the downsides of leaving the soil upturned for too long. 

Benefits of Plowing

Plowing is essential to farming, and it’s been used since the dawn of time. Artefacts and drawings of ancient plows and farmers can be traced back to 3500 B.C.E. Interestingly, the basic design of the plow hasn’t changed much over the years, although powering it has. 

From using manual plowers, to harnessing the power of animals, we now use powerful engines for plowing our lands. It’s among the most important steps to prepare the soil after harvesting crops. 

The main benefit of plowing is to dig up the richer layers of the soil and bring them up to where the plants can utilize them. Besides that, plows create suitable furrows for seeding, and proper paths in the ground for plant roots to grow. 

Conclusion

Gardening and farming are human activities that directly impacted the survival of mankind. Thus, it’s not too surprising to see that some of the tools and agricultural processes are still used after thousands of years. 

Plowing and tilling are among these ancient practices, as they’re absolutely essential for getting the soil ready for seeding. Both processes involve loosening and aerating the soil. However, plowing is more intense, and involves turning the soil over as well. Plowing is primarily used in farms, while tilling would be best for a home garden.   

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